Monday, March 8, 2010

The Forgotten Franchise

With Andre Dawson’s election to the Hall of Fame this past in January there has been a bit of a renaissance of Baseball’s forgotten franchise: Les Expos de Montréal (1969-2004). Who can forget Randy Johnson with his full frame in the powder blue Expos uniform before he was traded to the Mariners. And how about Pete Rose getting his 4,000 hit in front of close to 48,000 fans in Olympic Stadium. Both Gary Carter and Andre Dawson laid the foundation to their Hall of Fame careers on the artificial turf in Montreal. Tim Raines stole bases in bunches while with the Expos. El Presidente equaled El Perfecto with the Expos. Pedro Martinez blazed his way into the record books in Montreal while the "Impaler" Vlad Guerrero, Moises Alou and Larry Walker were decimating opposing pitching staffs hitting any balls they saw come their way in Le Stade Olympique with the Expos. In the most painful of images, who can forget the images of the Felipe Alou team that was running roughshod over the National League in the lost season of 1994. I can go on and on.

Now you Seattle Pilots fans might say “Hey, what about the Pilots” and you guys and gals could have a point but let me tell you why the Expos are the forgotten ones. The Mariners have worn Seattle Pilots uniforms as their throwback uniforms though the Pilots have nothing to do with the Mariners. For those of you who don’t know, the Pilots played the 1969 season in Seattle before going broke and were moved to Milwaukee by a group lead by current Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig for the 1970 season. The Pilots became the Brewers who replaced the Braves who moved to Atlanta in 1966. So, they aren’t truly forgotten since the Mariners give them recognition and the Brewers also recognize their roots as the Pilots. This is not the case for the Montreal Expos.

The Expos left Montreal after the 2004 season, relocating in Washington D.C. as the Nationals. Major League Baseball recognizes the lineage of the Nationals but here is the rub, the Nationals don’t. As far as the Nationals go, their team came to exist the moment they played their first game as the Nationals. I guess since it is their franchise they can do what they please but to be fair to baseball fans and historians, the Expos should be recognized. So here are my two cents on the Expos.

Sure the Expos never made a World Series and made the post-season a handful of times but nothing should be taken away from that franchise. The Expos were the first franchise that the MLB established outside of the borders of the United States and was only the 3rd National League expansion franchise after the New York Mets and the Houston Colt 45‘s/Astros in 1962..Though their language and customers were different, the city of Montreal gave Baseball a truly unique flavor. It was in this vein that I want to give you a peek of what Baseball in Montreal was like at the end from the mouth of my baseball brother Pete Sophy.

Pete is a lifelong Philadelphia Phillies fan who attended a couple of baseball games in Montreal during the 2004 season. Now unlike the tragic season of 1994 where the Expos were on top of the Baseball world playing in front of a total of 1,249,576 fans, leading the major leagues in victories (74-40) until the strike ended their hopes of a World Championship, the Montreal Expos Pete saw were in a much different shape. Read on to see what I mean.

Wanting to visit as many major league ballparks as possible, I decided to drive to Montreal during the summer of ‘04 to see my beloved Phillies play the Expos . Knowing 2004 was the “swansong” season for the Expos and Olympic Stadium, I traveled solo because my window for travel was very narrow. Upon arriving in Montreal, I drove directly to the stadium and walked up to the box office. The place was like a baseball morgue. I purchased 2 tickets for consecutive nights. The seats were located directly behind the Phillies dugout and the price for both tickets were a whopping $39 dollars (U.S.). The whole transaction lasted about 2 minutes, probably because I was the only human anywhere near the buying side of the box office.

The game was a surreal but enjoyable experience. I sat with Philly fans that seemed to “out shout” and “out knowledge” the Frenchies. There may have been 3000 paying customers sitting in primo seats that you know they didn’t pay for, except for this one loner Expos fan in the deep right field stands. This guy displayed the cavernous loneliness an Expos follower might have endured during these dying days. He would yell and scream Anti-Philly chants, he would stomp his feet, clap his hands, chortle, guffaw, and the entire crowd heard everything, I was amazed, entertained and also a little sad.

The food was not standard baseball fare. The florescent pink mystery frank had a weird sort of coleslaw piled over the meat and buns that when you ate this French mess your teeth would resemble Jaws after devouring Quint. My memory betrays me as far as details go on the other “cuisine” but I remember thinking the signs for French Fries were redundant because we were in Montreal.

I practically had my own food vendor and service was not a problem. I think Youppi doubled as the beer guy for some extra scratch. Youppi was pretty nice, not as funny or clever like the Phanatic, and he (or she) mixed it up with the Philly guys.

The Phillies won both games and it was well played, well pitched Baseball. The second night was pretty much identical to the first. The same Philly fans attended, I ate the same weird food, the guy in the right field stands yelled the same obscenities, Youppi was hovering and the overall experience will be forever missed.

So when Andre Dawson is enshrined to the Hall of Fame this upcoming summer and you see that fancy looking “M” on the cap on his plaque, you know what it symbolized and why they should never be forgotten.

For Further Reading:
- The Sports Encyclopedia page on the Montreal Expos
- Check out Chris Creamer's Montreal Expos' page for cool looks at logo, symbols and uniforms of the Expos.
- Tyler Kepner's NY Times article titled Montreal Expos, Forgotten by Many, Are Reuniting in Cooperstown dated January 7, 2010

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